The Politics of Racism by Ann Gomer Sunahara


In February 1942 the federal Cabinet ordered the expulsion of 22,000 Japanese CanadiansA residing within one hundred miles of the Pacific coast. That order marked the beginning of a process that saw Canada's Japanese minority uprooted from their homes, confined in detention camps, stripped of their property, and forcibly dispersed across Canada or shipped to a starving Japan.

An ugly episode in Canadian history, the events of the eight years between 1942 and 1950 left Japanese Canadians in a state of trauma that has been compared to that of a rape victim.1 Although conscious that they were innocent victims, Japanese Canadians felt humiliated by their degrading experiences. Their humiliation was compounded by the knowledge that the general public held them at least in part responsible for what had happened to them. Like rape victims, they responded with silence, with an aversion to discussing their experiences.

Fortunately, time heals most wounds. In 1981, when this book was first published, it had been almost forty years since that first order was issued and over thirty years since the last of their civil liberties were restored to them. In that period of time, individuals prospered, discrimination diminished considerably, and Japanese Canadians earned a reputation as a model minority: as quiet, hard-working, well-educated, prosperous and assimilated Canadians. Also in that period of time, those who suffered the greatest loss, those of the pioneer generation called Issei, were largely gone. The need for silence was past, and many of the remaining victims could finally tell their stories.

Enough time had also passed that the secret workings of Canada's wartime government need no longer be kept secret. The records of the conferences, meetings and private discussions that decided the fate of Canada's Japanese minority were now available to the public. Finally it was possible to look behind the public posture of the government of the day to seek the reasons and personalities behind those policies, to seek answers to the question: "Why?"

Previous chroniclers could only speculate on the reasons behind the seven-year exile of Japanese Canadians. When Forrest E. La Violette wrote The Canadian Japanese and World War II2 in the 1940s, wartime censorship hindered his efforts. In addition, as a sociologist La Violette was primarily interested in the exile of Japanese Canadians as a social phenomenon, one that paralleled a similar exile of Japanese Americans. Accordingly, he accepted the explanation of the government of the day – that it had merely responded to a mistaken but overwhelming surge of public opinion in British Columbia. La Violette was unable – or lacked the interest – to determine how that surge of public opinion materialized, or how it came to be translated into the repressive policies applied to the innocent Japanese.

When Ken Adachi researched The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians3 in the 1950s, he was similarly handicapped. Denied access to the government documents by the thirty-year rule,4 Adachi could only draw upon published memoirs, the proceedings of inquiries and royal commissions, and other documents in the public domain. As a consequence, his account is largely an update of La Violette's earlier work. Adachi does not so readily accept the view of the government of the day, but he cannot prove that the public statements of that government do not match their private actions. He therefore concentrates on enlarging the Japanese Canadian side of the story, and in doing so makes an important contribution in view of the fact that Japanese Canadians in both La Violette's account and popular myth are depicted as passive objects upon which the government and Canadian society act and react.

Barry Broadfoot's Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame5 makes no attempt to analyse why Japanese Canadians were treated in the manner they were. Broadfoot's purpose, in his own words, is "to put flesh on the skeleton of history."6 By letting the participants, both Japanese and non-Japanese, tell their stories in their own words, Broadfoot fleshes out the facts with personal experiences. The result is a very readable account that, while marred by historical inaccuracies due to the frailty of human memory, shows the complexity of the story. More importantly, Broadfoot's account shows that the participants still do not understand what happened to them, and still seek to know why it happened.

With the use of the government's own documents, this book sought to strip away the mask of wartime rhetoric and examine from the perspective of federal government policy the seven years in which Japanese Canadians were exiled in their own country. It is the story of how the government came to set its harsh policies. It traces the evolution of those policies from their birth in the rhetoric of British Columbia politicians, through their maturation in the wartime government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, to their implementation under the all-powerful War Measures Act – despite opposition by Canada's leading military and police officers and, in one case, by Parliament itself.

This book also tells the story of how Japanese Canadians reacted to, coped with and finally defeated the repressive policies of their government. It tells how a minority of Canadians became pariahs in the eyes of their fellow Canadians. It traces how Japanese Canadians, individually and collectively, resisted, influenced, altered and, finally, with the help of a pitifully small group of concerned Caucasian Canadians, defeated the ambitions of B.C.'s politicians. Importantly, it shows that the final victory was not a legal victory, but a political one.

The government documents reveal a very different story from that traditionally told. The documents demonstrate that each Order-in-Council under the War Measures Act that affected Japanese Canadians – uprooting, confinement, dispossession, deportation and dispersal – was motivated by political considerations rooted in racist traditions accepted, and indeed encouraged, by persons within the government of the day. The documents also show that at no point in the entire seven years of their exile were Japanese Canadians ever a threat to national security. By contrast, almost every measure taken against Japanese Canadians was strongly opposed by the most senior officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the military, and by the entire Far Eastern Division of the Department of External Affairs. In the confrontation between the educated and factually based opinions of Canada's experts and the prejudiced and politically based opinions of B.C.'s politicians, however, the Cabinet invariably sided with the politicians.

The government documents also reveal that the racism that determined the fate of Japanese Canadians was present in both an active and a passive form: the overt, active racism of British Columbia politicians and the passive, often unconscious, racism of the federal Cabinet as a whole.

In many ways the latter was more destructive than the former. While the overt racists promoted the repressive measures imposed on Japanese Canadians, it took the silent compliance of the federal Cabinet to put those measures into effect. Japanese Canadians were uprooted, confined, stripped of their property, dispersed and deported not only because British Columbian politicians demanded it, but also because apparently no one in the Cabinet could be bothered to question those demands. As long as passive racism remained the norm in Cabinet, the freedom of Japanese Canadians remained in jeopardy.

Racism was a common factor in the holocaust that was the Second World War. Among the shocking inhumanities of that period the events described in this book appear relatively minor. An important distinction between these events and those of Europe or Asia, however, lies in the fact that Canada imposed repressive policies on a racial minority while ostensibly fighting for justice and equality for all. While certainly less extreme than those practised by the Third Reich, the actions of the Canadian government were nonetheless also based on the political exploitation of racism, and in the Canadian case, such tactics were cruelly hypocritical. The Canadian government betrayed not only Japanese Canadians but also the men and women it was sending to Europe and Asia, by making a mockery of the principles for which they were fighting and dying.